A while ago I went through a course which was intended to train people to be novelists. We learned a lot about sentences, but never about story. The only people who understood that were screenwriters. They had a very clear idea of how to write. With its language of “inciting incidents”, “midpoints”, “innermost caves” and “rebirth”, their understanding of story was as clear and as dogmatic as ang ideology. Sure, we novelists-in-training would answer but what about us? Do we have to follow the same sequence? Obviously, one lecturer would tell us. God no, the next would say.
This difference of approach helps to explain the subtle change that took place in Game of Thrones at the end of series 6 and culminated in this week’s episode.
Up to the end of series 6, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss were working with George R R Martin’s novel sequence A Song of Ice and Fire. Essentially, their approach was to follow the plot narrowly and literally, at least at the start, although it wasn’t long before they were cutting whole subplots (eg in the novels, Catelyn Stark is brought to back to life and fights the Lannisters silently from beyond the grave – not thankfully on TV).
Martin, famously, has stalled in finishing off the books. Only five novels out of an intended seven have been published, the last of them eight years ago. He used to tell interviewers that when he started the books he had begun with lots of people in one place and as they split apart more and more characters joined them. At some point they would start moving back together. “I think I’m reaching the turning point,” he wrote in 2011, “that’s starting to happen now.” The rest of us are still waiting.
In all of series 7 and the first three episodes of series 8, you could see Benioff and Weiss imposing the urgency of professional plotters on what had been previously Martin’s discursive, divergent story. One of the show’s two main protagonists Daenerys Targaryen was dragged from Dragonstone to King’s Landing, then north of the Wall and to Winterfell at a pace which would previously have been unthinkable. The Wall collapsed, with the significant exception of Cersei Lannister all the major characters were taken to Winterfell in order to fight a final, decisive battle with the Night King.
Even in episode 3, you could see the same approach at work – a screenwriter’s sensibility. The episode was plotted as a sequence of alternate moments, with good rising then bad, until just when everything seemed lost…
The opening cast the battle through the terrified eyes of Samwell Tarly, the writerliest (i.e. biggest coward) of all the soldier characters. In the middle parts of the episode, once the army of the undead had conquered Winterfell, there were moments of real horror – the spots of zombie blood falling on Arya. The denoument was a beautiful piece of “backwards writing” (i.e. when you start with a scene – the death of the Night King, and plot a route to it from the conclusion). A series of potential “good assassins” were tried but each defeated: Theon with his war charge, Danerys with fire, Jon trapped too far away to be any use at all. It was a bravura piece of writing to keep Arya off-screen for a full 25 minutes as each hero was defeated.
If you could take this single episode and see it in its own terms, it worked.
But did it? If you think of that moment with Arya above the Night King – flying in the air, jumping almost unnoticed: the scene itself requires us to assume an almost supernatural ability for the character to cover long distances through hunting zombies, then to move around Winterfell at almost inconceivable speed – before finally leaping from the snow (trying doing this at winter without losing your footing…). It requires us to imagine her, in other words, having almost superhuman powers. If an audience is willing to give Arya that credit it’s because we’ve been through the previous seven episodes with her, watched her apprenticeship as a Faceless Man at the House of Black and White. It’s because, in other words, Benioff and Weiss were able to trade off a great deal of pre-empting done prior to series 6.
And this was the pattern throughout the episode (as indeed it has been, ever since they took over). The scriptwriters keep on taking from a reserve of goodwill that the previous six series had built up. They never give back.
There was never a “Hodor” moment when you learned something about a character and their story surprisingly, gloriously, made sense in the end.
So in episode three there were repeated moments when characters, having played a role which the whole previous show had built towards – then added nothing to it. The Dothraki horsemen (the series’ principal black characters) rode out to battle and were slain, pointlessly. The Night King died without adding in any way to our understanding of where he came from or who he is except we learned the very mundane fact he couldn’t be killed by fire.
One way to read this is as a bunch of Hollywood scripwriters doing what they excel at – simplifying a complex story, allowing it to end. On that technical score, they seem to outperform the slow novelist.
But there’s a second, deeper sense in which Martin’s novelistic consciousness offers a much more interesting idea about how people could live.
The joy of A Song of Ice and Fire is that beneath a cynical exterior (the near-killing of Bran, the Red Wedding), there was always a subtle possibility of change. It was in the same family as “ignore your family and do what’s right,” but it went deeper than that and took in a heady dose of redemption. In the books, this was reflected in the character of Theon – stupid, selfish, and then subject to such long and cruel and humiliating punishments, that you felt maybe he could do alright in the end.
A novelist can wait for this kind of redemption, a film-maker can’t.
The Theon arch was so obvious that even Benioff and Weiss managed not to ruin it (although with their references to “home” and “good man” they did their best).
What they seemed to be doing throughout was steering away from Martin’s notion of a hard-earned transformation in favour of a well-meaning and vaguely liberal attitude towards life in which the small characters win because they are small. In which characters just do what they do. They make mistakes (this isn’t a superhero film), but the misakes have no real weight.
So you end up with the banality of Lyanna Mormont’s death, a sequence in which the baddest of zombie monsters brings a dying hero close to it for no comprehensible motive other than to facilitate its own death.
Or the survival of Tyrion and Sansa in the crypt: after the cleverest character in the show puts an army of children in a situation of utter terror – without any effect, the zombies don’t do anything there – no one dies.
It doesn’t sound like a large difference, but what the episode forgot was that even good people are capabale of such monumental stupidity that you find yourself gasping and wanting to rub your eyes. That mistakes carry consequences. That the monsters in our lives are more than an assembly of glass pieces that fall apart at the right touch. That redemption has to be earned, really, properly earned.